The Mill writer John Fay on the real people who inspired the drama

The Mill writer John Fay on the real people who inspired the drama

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What’s in a name? The emotional climax to the first series of The Mill, the line that made me cry as I typed it, came when a young girl stood proudly before her master and fellow workers, clutching her baptismal certificate, and said: “My name is Esther Price.”

I knew how much that certificate meant, and how much she endured to get it. But the real kicker was the knowledge that the original certificate still survives – it’s one of a small number of documents that prove Esther existed.

She was an orphan from Liverpool Workhouse, born in 1820 before it became a legal requirement to register a birth, and one of at least 900 children to have been apprenticed at Quarry Bank cotton mill near Wilmslow in Cheshire. Her indentures state: “Those present do put and place Esther Price aged 12 or thereabouts, a poor child of the parish of Liverpool, Apprentice to Samuel Greg and Robert Hyde Greg, ... with them to dwell and serve ... until she shall attain the age of 18 years.”

Esther’s small role in history, and huge role at the heart of our drama, was secured when she ran away from work to go back to Liverpool. Why did she risk the wrath of her employer to do this? We’ll never know for sure, but I believe the answer lies in her indentures.

First, soon after Esther had been caught and punished with a term of solitary confinement, a note was added to her papers. It says: “Esther claims to be 18 in March 1838.” Secondly, her baptismal certificate from St Peter’s church in Liverpool has been attached. The certificate confirms her “claim”.

Esther knew the official document was wrong: it said she was 12, but she was 18 months older. She knew she would have to continue to work as an unwaged apprentice even after she turned 18 – unless she did something about it. Why did she down tools and leave work? To assert her identity, to establish the truth, to fight for justice.

I set the first series of The Mill from 1833 to 1834 because it is where EP Thompson’s classic book The Making of the English Working Class ends. Thompson argues that by this time the working class was finally established, had found its voice and its identity, and was ready to assert itself. That’s where we left Esther and her fellow workers.

My ambition for the show is to use generations of mill-worker families to chart the tumultuous ups and downs of the English industrial working class over a period of 150 years, up until Quarry Bank becomes “Museum of the Year” in 1984... and the Miners’ Strike begins.

Now it’s 1837, the year Oliver Twist was published and an 18-year old Queen Victoria acceded to the throne. Esther is looking forward to the end of her apprenticeship, and hopes to be kept on as a paid employee of Greg and Sons. Why would she stay there? Because, in compari- son to the more ruthless urban mills and city slums, Quarry Bank was a relatively good place to work and raise a family. The Gregs, particularly the liberal-minded matriarch Hannah Greg, liked to think of themselves as philanthropic and benevolent employers. But they held no truck with trade unions or the rising tide of Chartism.

So our mill hands, led by the firebrand engineer Daniel Bate, become involved with the Chartist struggle for democracy and the fight against austerity; an austerity they are bearing the brunt of despite it being largely caused by a banking crisis in America. At the height of the Chartist agitation, half a million British workers went on strike to fight wage cuts and demand the right to a vote for all men. (You’ll have to wait until series four for the Suffragettes.) It was probably the first general strike in history. Some stayed out for as long as six weeks, and four strikers were shot dead by troops in Preston.

Downing tools and walking off the job in defiance of your master, whether to improve conditions or protest against injustice, is the simplest and most powerful freedom workers will ever possess, but often they’re risking not just their jobs, but sometimes even their lives.

Don’t believe me? Two hundred years ago a man died on a slave plantation in Dominica, which was owned by the philanthropic Greg family. According to the official documents, the dead man’s name was Frank. That’s all. Just Frank. We don’t know when or where he was born, or if he had any family. All we know for certain is the day he died: 5 January 1814. We know this because after it happened, 20 of his fellow slaves downed tools and marched off the plantation, claiming that Frank had been “flogged to death” by their manager.

Ten days later a man by the name of Peter – just Peter – stood trial for “exciting a mutiny amongst 20 negroes”. The trial found that Frank had died “by the visitation of God”. The plantation manager was exonerated, Peter executed.

When the government minister responsible for the colonies asked to see the minutes of the trails, he was told it would be difficult because the Judge Advocate had “written them in so careless a manner and on separate sheets of paper with contractions, erasures and interlineations”. But you can still find those official documents in the National Archives at Kew. They prove that 200 years ago a man called Frank actually existed, and a man called Peter was beheaded. But do they tell the truth?

I’m not an historian, but as a dramatist I can tell the truth by making things up. That’s why I’ve invented Frank’s fictional grandson, Peter, brilliantly played by Sope Dirisu. Born and raised on the Greg family plantation, he comes to Quarry Bank looking for justice and the truth about Frank and Peter. And when you read in the credits that The Mill is “inspired” by real people and events, tha’s exactly what I mean.

Oh, and the name of that plantation? Hillsborough. But what’s in a name?

The Mill starts tonight at 8:00pm on Channel 4

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